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Sir Bob on blondes, boozy lunches and F&P

"It just doesn't matter," Sir Bob Jones barks down the phone from his Wellington office.

In a conversation prompted by Chinese company Haier's bid to take over Fisher & Paykel Appliances, the 72-year-old property magnate brings up 1980s pop hit Melting Pot and an amusing anecdote involving a boozy lunch with Australian government officials.

Alarmingly, he also confidently predicts blondes will be extinct within 50 years.

Like any interview with the NBR Rich Lister – littered with references to far-away places and politicians, and sprinkled with profanity – you just have to jump into his stream of consciousness and enjoy the ride.

To some, F&P's story might be typically Kiwi: that we've got the know-how to develop a world-leading product but somehow we fail to convert that into world-leading sales.

Nonsense, snorts Sir Bob. A lot of New Zealand companies – including his own Robt. Jones Holdings, which has about $1 billion of commercial and industrial property in Auckland, Wellington and Sydney – own stuff abroad.

"We've brought back about $30 million in rental earnings from Australia, all starting from scratch in 1993, over the last 10 years to help pay for buildings we bought back here.

"These are the things that, because it's a private company, you never read about. But I'm sure there's plenty of duplications."

We are witnessing the greatest human migration in history and the world will be better for it, he says. Hysteria over Chinese ownership of farms is childish, he says, and if we lose people to Australia we've got better people coming in.

It's like the 80s tune Melting Pot, he says, that, lamentably, isn't heard any more.

"Look, when I was young, marrying an Australian would be considered incredibly exotic. These days, if your neighbour said to you, 'Bill's engaged, he's in London, he's met a lovely girl from bloody Moldova, or Kyrgyzstan or Peru' or something, you wouldn't blink twice.

"All the inter-marriage, the massive shift – unprecedented in human history – of great waves of people moving here there and everywhere. And it's really good, it's terrific."

It is then that he makes his claim about blondes. People have predominantly dark colouring, he reasons, so combine that will the global intermingling and "there won't be any blondes left in 50 years".

(However, it appears these claims first surfaced during the American Civil War and seem wide of the mark.)

Imbibing with FIRB

To illustrate his own brush with xenophobia, he harks back to the 1980s and his battles to buy Australian office buildings with that country's Foreign Investment Review Board, empowered by then Prime Minister Bob Hawke's rhetoric.

He recalls a particularly boozy lunch with FIRB after they knocked back his application to buy a large Brisbane office tower.

When they got down to business – and before a dish had even been ordered – an economist, who Sir Bob describes as a "bad-tempered, fat Welshman", laid down the law.

"You know the f*cking rules," the Welshman apparently said.

Despite the awkwardness, the lunch went on as planned. And, with a little liquid encouragement, the meeting turned around.

"I said, 'I'm just going to the toilet', and I ripped over to the waitress and said there's a very big tip coming – do not wait to be asked, keep topping those b*stards' glasses up," Sir Bob recalls.

"So within half an hour it was all very jolly. On to cricket and all this and the whole thing went all afternoon. We were pretty p*ssed. And we got up to leave and the Welshman said, 'Listen you bastards, I'll let you have this one but don't come back with any more'."

History says they did keep going back but their tactics changed – from wining and dining to sending a dreary accountant to bore them into submission.

Sir Bob returns to his central theme and asks rhetorically why Auckland is booming.

"Because half its citizens weren't born there and they're coming in from Gore and Oamaru and China and everywhere else and they're hungry fighters."

He challenges NBR ONLINE to find an Auckland-born waiter or waitress at a downtown restaurant, "and if you do I'll come up there, chop my hands off and eat them uncooked".

F&P's takeover is as meaningless as Australian company Fairfax's takeover of Trade Me, he concludes.

"It doesn't matter who owns the bloody things. Because we're buying stuff elsewhere and the world's going to be one big common market and that is the world trend. So who gives a stuff?"

Takeovers will continue: an academic view

The University of Auckland Business School Professor Siah Hwee Ang says if Haier's bid is successful it won't be the first time an innovative New Zealand company has fallen into the hands of global giants.

"This will continue to happen unless there is a strong sense of 'who we are' when conducting businesses.  Entrepreneurs are passionate but as companies grow, ownerships get diluted and financial gains can come into play with some of the shareholders."

He says there is no 100% takeover protection for even the most innovative companies. It's about how effective you protect your intellectual property and then go to market fast enough to survive the vultures, he says.

"I don't think this is about New Zealand, it happens a lot in other contexts as well.

"F&P has created many good products, but I'm not sure if they have been the most effective exploiters of their own innovations.

"If they have, it would have been the case that F&P would do better than Haier and the acquisition could be the other way round. R&D is an input, not output."

More by David Williams

Comments and questions

Bob's comments nowadays are less incisive or witty as they once were.

Bobs gunner have blond jokes 24 hrs any blonds in auckland working in resturant let nbr know about it get sir bob you know where !!!!!

Thanks Mr Williams for giving us Sir Bob's take on a few things. Nice start to the weekend. Just to add...I reckon I'm pretty comfortable in Auckland property wise of course, but I reckon with the exchange rate and prices Sydney property looking to buy has me in a sweat. Nothing like looking globally to put a perspective on things.

Verbal farts from an old wino...

Just to beat the drum one more time!
If we had a more forward-looking reserve bank that set interest rates at a level that encourages,rather than discourages,interest rates we would be on a road to building some domestic investment capital and thus better be in a position to have more purchasing of our innovations by Kiwis,rather than having to rely on overseas capital.
Regretfully though, our politicians have a blind spot here and we continue on our downward economic path.

Heres the difference between trademe and f&p: trademe is a finished whole product or asset. Sure you can sell that. And the inventors can go off and invent more in nz. But with f&p they are selling the inventors themselves; peoples minds. some of the smartest people in the country in r&d who constantly come up with ideas that pave the way for the future. It's like first selling land or plants, then selling all the seeds. Or selling a family car and home, then actually selling the sons and daughters off!! It's got to stop.

And I really hate the way they are going to force all those smart people to move to China. It really isn't fair to them or the country.

Sir Bob's comments shine a bit of humour on normally serious issues; keep it up!

Dont clean your fingernails Bob , I think I know some AKL young people wiling to work :)

With the wealth Sir Bob has accummulated, he can afford to be relaxed about another raid on NZ businesses.

Further, not everyone can hide behind a company secretary to cover up there insider share trading. Sir Bob lost his integrity with me at that point; if he had any in the first place.

Unfortunately, not everyone is in the same position or could ever hope to be. The poor of today are alot poorer than the poor of the 1950's & 1960's, when skilled jobs and opportunities were much more plentiful.

If only we had a balance of investment income coming into and leaving this country, NZ wouldnt have any worries. Unfortunately, there has been a year on year deficit exceeding $14 billion plus. Thats a massive drain on an economy which only has a GDP of $180 billion or less.The consequences of which include reduced public service affordability; that is, inferior health and justice systems. Education, as Christchurch is founding out, will be next.

Duoploy & monopoly corporations have way too much power these days, absorbing so much more of take home pay for lifes essentials.

I enjoy Sir Bobs light hearted approach to life, if only the masses could enjoy it the way he sees it.

Bobs always right on the money.